After finishing university I set out on a backpacking adventure. I had enough money to sustain me for about 3 weeks but I managed to travel for nearly a year all over Europe! I did this with the great art of busking.
My experience busking
While I was traveling Europe I could be earning around €50-60 in half an hour of busking. This is a pretty crazy amount of money when you first leave university! I never pushed too hard and just busked when I needed to. But how did I get there?
A dream of mine had always been to backpack around Europe. Staying in dodgy hostels. Eating weird food. Drinking far too much! You know, the Hollywood backpacker cliche. The problem was that I would struggle to afford the plane ticket, let alone the travel once I was there.
I can’t remember when exactly I decided that busking would be my best option. But it turns out that it was the best plan I could have had. I turned about 3 weeks of travel money into nearly a year-long trip. I could have kept going as well, but I missed my family and Monique.
Being a busker is not the easiest thing. It is one thing to pull out your instrument at a pub or local market and play for some extra spending money. It is a completely different story if that is now your money to survive. Busking is not begging, you are offering entertainment and if people enjoy that entertainment they give you a tip. But surviving off people’s generosity is emotionally draining.
You have good days and you have bad days, just like any other job. Sometimes you’re fighting with buskers because of playing spots. Or you’re dealing with disgruntled authorities. Other times, even though there are crowds of people, no one is tipping. Some days you’re lucky and one person may give you an entire day of tips in one go.
For the full story on what I experienced in each country, check out my music website The Lonely Busker.
If you play a musical instrument I would highly recommend trying out busking. It takes confidence but once you’re in the swing of things the rewards are great! For fun I collected badges of every city I busked in and sewed them on to my bag. I still like looking at them every now and again.
8 Things to think about before busking
1. Your busking performance
Busking With a Musical Instrument
Probably the most important thing is, can you travel easily with it? If you play the piano, you may want to look into something else. Even a guitar could frustrate you when traveling internationally.
An instrument like a violin or ukulele is perfect. You can take it as hand luggage on a plane. I play the bagpipes and they fit neatly into a backpack.
Don’t lose hope if you play a large instrument. If you are competent at music try learning something smaller. A ukulele is a pretty ideal instrument. It is not a difficult instrument to learn! Make sure you put in the practice hours though, nobody likes a shoddy musician.
Busking with a performance act
If you are doing things like juggling or magic shows you need to consider how much space you will need, how easy is it to travel with your props and is your act exciting enough? Unlike music, an act will normally need to engage the audience until the end of the show before passing around the hat.
You will also need to have a clean performance. A musician can get away with the odd slip, but a dancer who falls or a magician who gets caught out will lose their audience very quickly.
2. Research before you leave
I did very little research before I left on my trip and it caused me lots of problems to start with. There are a lot more blogs about busking than when I left for my trip a few years ago BUT location specific blogs become outdated fast. Busking trends change and new laws can have a huge affect on whether a place is lucrative or not.
I would suggest joining the group Buskers aka Musical Whores on Facebook. It is a community of buskers that share a lot of up to date information on busking. It is also an active community so if you have questions they will get answered.
3. Research when you get there
Know what’s legal
A lot of towns will have their own laws regarding buskers. In Cologne, Germany, they had a law that you could only busk in the first 30 minutes of every hour but you don’t need a permit. In Nuremberg, where I had my best busking, I needed to get a new permit every few days.
This information is not always easy to get unless you happen to make friends with another busker. What I would do is find the official town office and ask until I had some sort of answer. It may take a day or 2 to locate but it meant I would be on the right side of the law if I was stopped by an official!
Watch other street performers
You will learn the most by watching other street performers. Which performers earn the most and which earn the least? What are they doing differently? Don’t be afraid to change up your act if you see a better way of doing something.
Look for things like how the performer gets the crowd. How do they pass their hat around? Where and when they are performing? How are they engaging their audience? Do they change up their music while they are playing?
Not everything will work for so be ready to adapt. You goal is to get people to open up their wallets. So if something works for a successful busker but doesn’t work when you try it, drop it.
4. Busking etiquette
For many people busking is how they support their family. Some buskers can get very aggressive if they feel that you are encroaching on their turf.
Make sure you set up far enough away from anybody else that your music won’t affect theirs. Don’t play with loud amps. In my opinion you shouldn’t need an amp at all but if you do, keep it soft enough so only the people around you can hear it. If you are too loud the police may even stop you. Try different volumes and see what works for you.
In this regard bagpipes were a nightmare. It is almost impossible to play without disturbing everyone on the entire block. I would often get asked by street vendors to move as well. Be polite and try reach a compromise. Don’t fight with anybody or it will come back to bite you!
Make friends with other buskers and stall/shop holders in your area. It could mean the difference between a civil compromise and getting chased away.
5. Learn popular songs and tunes
You can learn tunes on the road but I’d suggest having a number of popular songs in your repertoire before leaving. Nothing gets more tips than playing the music people know. I had a tune set that included Thunderstruck and the Final Countdown. It was immensely popular.
One day I saw 2 South Africans walking past so I started the South African national anthem. I made 2 very quick friends and a large tip.
There are a lot of terrible buskers. If you are competent and play popular tunes you will stand out and do well.
I also had to put up with being asked to play Amazing Grace and Highland Cathedral a hundred times a day. I know a loads of better tunes but it got me tips. It’s what I played.
Popular does not just mean what is currently number 1 in the charts. When I was busking in Ireland, I would play traditional Irish tunes which were also hugely popular. Try learn some folk tunes if you are going to more traditional tourist areas. YouTube is a great resource if you’re unsure what folk tunes to play.
6. Have fun and make friends
People who walk past respond well if they see that you enjoy what you are doing. Giving someone a smile is a way to make a quick connection and they are more likely to give you a tip. I don’t know if there is any researched evidence to support this but it is what I experienced.
I also discovered a deeper passion for my music while busking. As narcissistic as this sounds, I loved my own music. I had loads of fun playing it and my audience picked up on that. It is also what kept me going out each day; I was having fun.
I met another bagpiper in Cologne and we spent several days busking together. It was the best thing to be able to share stories and tips. It is never easy being truly alone and you miss out on a lot of valuable insight.
7. Find out about Buskers’ Festivals
When I was in Bern, Switzerland, there was a buskers festival. Basically buskers apply to take part, they are flown to Bern and then they can keep any tips they make as part of the festival.
Unfortunately I only found out about it on the day so I couldn’t take part. A festival is more than worth your time if you have a good act to market. You will be required to do more than strum away on a ukulele though! Perhaps you have a few adventurous friends and you can set up a fun trip.
There are other festivals around the world, you can read about them here. If busking is something you want to take seriously, then consider trying to get into festivals.
8. Busking is scary
Busking is an incredibly public way of performing. It is not easy to just set up in the middle of a crowded street and start performing. It takes a lot of confidence.
You can’t know how you will be received. Several times I had very negative reactions. Mostly because of the volume of the bagpipes but it can get very disheartening.
Don’t give up though. Push on and you will find that it is very rewarding. The majority of comments I received were very positive and I grew a lot more confident in my playing.
Top 10 Tips for Making Money Busking
1. Choose your pitch well.
This is so important. You cannot earn money if people are not walking past you. You need to find yourself a very popular tourist spot to set up. Tourists are more likely to give you tips than locals, especially if there are lots of buskers around.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with times and locations. If you are not making any money, try a different time. If you aren’t getting enough feet walking past, try another place. Also remember that some days you’ll be lucky and make a packet, other days are just terrible; it may have nothing to do with your pitch, just luck!
I’d also suggest having your back to a wall or something solid. It means that you can keep an eye on all your equipment. It will also help keep you out of the way of most traffic. You don’t want to be a public nuisance.
2. Have about 1 hour of music prepared.
If you are going to be busking for a long time it is better to not be repeating the same song over and over again. If you have stall or shop owners around you it will drive them insane.
It will also help keep your own music fresh for you. If you are bored with the music that you’re playing it will come across to the audience.
3. Play popular music
I cannot stress how successful this was for me as a busker. The response was great. Knowing the national anthem of the country you are busking in can also be a huge draw card for locals. Most of your tips will come from tourists but if you can crack the local market you will be doing well.
From a personal perspective, I have always felt more inclined to tip a busker if they play something I know. It immediately catches my ear and normally brightens my day.
4. Be good!
You do not have to be the number 1 performer in your field but you need to be good. Your audience will be a lot more receptive if you are a competent.
No one wants to listen to someone scratching through their performance. If they tip it is out of pity, not because they appreciate what you are doing.
In my opinion, if you are just making a noise, you then fall into the category of beggar, not busker.
5. Dress the part
The more complete the performance the better received it will be. If you are dressed for the part you will stand out making it more likely that people will actually give you tips.
This does come down to practicality. I didn’t have the space to carry a kilt when I was traveling through Europe so I just busked in my jeans. I did have a few opportunities to borrow kit and my tips were nearly doubled.
You are performing. It is a show. Audiences want to see something genuine. So if you can dress up for your show, definitely do it.
6. Put some money in your hat when you start.
This is busking 101. It may seem like a no-brainer but there are lots of people who don’t do this. It really works
For some reason people are more inclined to give you money if they think that someone else already has.
7. Display confident body language
Smiling at your audience will help draw them to you. It is difficult to ignore and just walk past someone who is friendly and open. I can guarantee that it will get you more tips.
Let your passion show through your performance. If you appear spirited and alive people are more likely to stop by to watch you. And therefore more likely to tip you.
Pausing for a minute or 2 between sets can also be useful. It lets audience members to approach you to ask questions. It also shows that you are open and friendly.
8. Show gratitude
It just needs to be a little nod, or thank you. You are living on people’s generosity. Even a small tip is something that adds up.
If people feel appreciated they are more likely to tip you again or even point you out to other people. It is the same as smiling at your audience.
Don’t busk with the mentality that you are owed something. The busking profession is based on luck. Some days are great and some are horrendous. Be prepared for that.
The is no magical formula for busking. Every location and season is going to be different. Experiment with what works best for you.
If you get it right first time, great. But don’t expect it to be easy. It took me 2 or 3 months before I really started earning well and had my own method figured out.
Be adaptable. Experimenting is only helpful if you are willing to change what you do. If something is not working, don’t do it.
10. Be friendly with other buskers
This is part of busking etiquette. You don’t have to be closest friends with other buskers and go have drinks at the pub after a day of busking. But it is a very good idea to at least be cordial with other buskers in your area.
More experienced buskers can really help you improve your busking gig. It may also mean that you can talk about sharing lucrative spots.
You don’t want to have to deal with aggressive buskers chasing you away from what they see as their spot. It can get very competitive but try cultivate friendships so that this doesn’t happen.
So now go throw your hat down!
One blog I did find just before I left on my busking journey was by a guy who had been a lawyer. He said he gave up practicing law when he realised he was making more money as a busker. When I got nervous about my planned trip I would keep reminding myself that if he could do it, so could I!
It was an amazing experience. At times it was really tough but I busked in 7 different countries, visited many more cities and have fantastic memories!
Happy travels and blue skies.